By Gary Gray
As a hobby or profession, photography is easy to begin with but difficult to master. Over the years I’ve worked with and taught many different people with many different skill levels and I’ve compiled my version of the most common mistakes I see people make with their photography.
Oh, and don’t be fooled, I’ve made these mistakes myself at one point or another.
In no particular order…
Shooting JPG files: This seems to be primarily a beginners ailment. They spend a couple thousand on nice camera gear and then set the camera to jpg mode. Why? I’ve heard a number of reasons. “It’s good enough”, “RAW files are too large for my hard drive”, “I store more shots on my camera chip with jpg mode”, “I don’t know how to edit”, “jpg files look better” What-ever the reason, it’s silly. The only reason for shooting jpg images is because you are required to do it. If you have a choice, don’t shoot jpg. Learn to edit a RAW file. Be a photographer.
Forgetting to charge the battery: I see this all the time. Somebody shows up for a workshop or outing, their battery is half discharged and they didn’t bring a spare. To compound the problem, they have the camera’s LCD screen displaying something all the time, which is going to drain their remaining charge in no time flat. And, to make matters worse, they fumble around in the menu for 10 minutes trying to figure out how to turn it off, draining even more battery.
Here’s the trick. Charge your battery before you leave the house. Always keep a fully charged spare battery with you (in your pocket, not in the car ¼ mile away) If you don’t have a good battery, your digital camera won’t take pictures. While you’re at it. Turn that LCD screen off. It will extend your battery life. You don’t need to look at your camera settings every 6 seconds and you don’t need to review (chimp) your shots every time you press the shutter. Lastly, learn how to do these things before you leave the house, not while you are standing around with a workshop group and the instructor is wasting time showing you how to do something this simple. There are two types of photographers in this world. Those with charged batteries and those who don’t have charged batteries. Which one are you?
Upgrading to a new camera body and keeping the same old junk lenses: Quite simply, your lenses are far more important than your camera body. Do the opposite. Upgrade to better lenses and keep the junk camera body. As a matter of fact, you should get good lenses to start with because you’ll have them for years. Camera bodies come and go with every shift of the market and/or holiday season.
My equipment sucks: I call this “golfers syndrome.” Can’t sink a putt so it must be the putter. Can’t hit a drive straight, so it must be the driver. Can’t get good looking photos, it must be the camera, or the lens. The last possible thing that could be wrong would be the photographer. A typical solution to this problem is to spend more money on a more expensive camera, or lens, or both. Better gear makes better photographs, right? Or, even better. “I have the most expensive gear made, so I must be a great photographer.”The next time you have a great meal, compliment the chef on how great their stove must be to have cooked such a wonderful meal. Better yet, learn more about how to be a better photographer. Once you master the equipment you have, move up to something better. Expensive camera equipment could easily result in really great looking bad photographs.
Gear Head: Some folks like to worship the technical God. That’s okay if that’s what floats your boat, but that isn’t what’s going to get you great shots. Photography has a technical aspect and an artistic aspect. The really great photographers are the really great artists first, not really great technicians first. If you concentrate on learning all the technical aspects of photographic equipment and ignore the art of composition and seeing, you’ll never be any better than average. The world is full of technical experts who can explain the difference between a Bayer sensor and a Foveon sensor, or who can tell you about diffraction limits and pixel wells. Whoopie Doobie, I recommend you worry less about how sharp your lens is and more about how good your composition is. If you can’t compose an image, you’re just another gear head who studies and worships technical specifications. Learn the technical aspects as a solid foundation, but study and practice the artistic aspects in great depth to grow. It’s the abstract capacity of your thinking that must be exploited and nurtured to become a good photographer. Oh, and fyi; tech talk in the field is boring and distracting. I’d rather hear about your dog or cat.
Single point of focus: I’m not talking about your composition here or a camera focus setting: I’m talking about a mindset that prevents you from thinking outside of a certain box. A good example of this is the photographer who spends a whole bucket full of money on an expensive super telephoto lens. Some of these lenses get really expensive, and as a result, they never use their other lenses. “By golly, this lens cost me $13,000 and I’ll get better shots with this lens than any other lens because it’s so expensive it must be the best out there” or some kind of skewed delusional thinking along those lines. There’s nothing wrong with buying expensive lenses if you can afford them, want them or must have them. But, don’t fool yourself into ignoring other focal lengths and lens types and end up stuck in a singular methodology and type of image. Lenses are tools, and for each job there are correct tools and incorrect tools. Use that expensive wildlife lens when you need it, learn when you don’t need it and find a different tool. You’ll have a much nicer portfolio of images if you diversify your lens selections and you’ll miss a lot less opportunities to get a great shot because you don’t have the flexibility to adjust on the fly.
What’s a flash?: I know professional photographers who have no better understanding of using a flash than they do of how to overhaul a Ferrari engine. I’ve heard some photographers proclaim that they are “natural light” shooters. Wonderful. In case you haven’t noticed this, they figured out that a flash is helpful to photography about 20 minutes after they invented the camera. Remember those old flash pans on a stick filled with flash gunpowder? Well, those create artificial light for the scene being photographed and make the photo look better. It still works that way too. Most digital cameras come with a built in flash, and most digital SLR’s have a hot shoe for attaching an external flash. If you are going to be a better photographer, you’d be well advised to buy an external flash and learn how to use it. It is an indispensable tool in photography. They aren’t just for portraits. Lose your fear of the unknown. Step into the light. The light of the flash.
Bulls-eye!: I see this happen all the time. It affects pros and amateurs, beginners and experienced photographers. The subject of the photograph is dead centered in the frame. Oh, it’s okay from time to time to compose an image this way. There are creative compositions that allow for this compositional error. But, most of the time, it’s a compositional error. Your better photographers don’t put the subject of the image dead center in the frame.
Background check: When you walk into a portrait studio, does the portrait photographer start taking photos of you in the lobby? Of course not. He takes you to an area where he or she has a background already set up and then positions you in front of that background and then takes your portrait. Well, you should learn to think like this for all of your photographs. The subject of your image needs to be thought about in context of the background and you should learn to always be mindful of what the background of your scene is going to look like before you press the shutter button. There are very few good photos with bad backgrounds. Think simple, think clean, think complimentary, think non distracting. The most important thing though is to think about it before you take the shot. Don’t start shooting in the lobby, wait until you have your subject’s background set. I’m talking all types of photography, not just portraits. Wildlife, nature, landscape, street scenes, still life, pets, you name it. Think about the background first.
Get closer: A lot of beginners take photos of things that end up looking really small in the scene. There’s no substitute for being close to the subject. Get close enough to compose a good shot that uses the entire frame. Don’t rely on telephoto to get you someplace your feet can take you. Don’t rely on cropping that image to make it look closer. Learn to walk and how to position yourself in the correct spot for the lens you are using and for the subject you are photographing. There will always be situations where you can’t get closer and the lens doesn’t quite have a long enough focal length, but if it’s possible to move closer without being destructive or disruptive, do it.